Education Letter to the Editor

Urban Legend?

January 09, 2007 2 min read

To the Editor:

Antonio Cortese and F. Howard Nelson claim to have refuted my conclusion that the teacher-transfer provisions of collective bargaining agreements doom the lowest-income schools to hiring less-experienced and lower-paid teachers (“An Urban Legend—Literally,” Commentary, Dec. 13, 2006).

Their analysis, however, misses the point about transfers within districts, which happen when teachers exercise seniority rights to move from higher- to lower-poverty schools. This happens regardless of the district’s poverty level. Teachers will transfer from higher- to lower-poverty schools even if the lowest-poverty schools are still very poor by national standards.

Poverty rates are relative, so I defined the highest-poverty schools (following researcher Marguerite Roza’s example) as those in the highest poverty quartile in their own district. The cutoff for the top quartile will vary from one district to another, but the effects are the same. In big-city districts, teacher salaries, on average, are nearly $3,000 lower in the highest-poverty schools.

Ms. Cortese and Mr. Nelson define high-poverty schools very differently, using a uniform national cutoff of 75 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. By this definition, half to virtually all of the schools in districts we have studied (such as Houston, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Denver, and Dallas) are high-poverty. Schools in the highest poverty quartile within those districts are from 87 percent to 100 percent free or reduced-price lunch. Teachers still use seniority-transfer rights to go to schools that, though less poor, are often still above 75 percent free or reduced-price lunch.

The authors can’t see the transfers inside big-city districts because they lump virtually all the schools into the high-poverty category. The vast majority of low-poverty schools in their analysis are not even in the same districts as the high-poverty schools. Thus, their comparisons of high- and low-poverty schools can’t tell us anything about the effects of within-district teacher transfers.

Ms. Cortese and Mr. Nelson also cite an earlier National Center for Education Statistics report as evidence that first-year teachers are no more prevalent in high-poverty schools than in low-poverty schools. But the NCES report uses the same definitions of high-poverty schools as the authors, and it does not claim to represent the distribution of teachers in any district. Thus, there is no warrant in either study for their claim that teacher-transfer provisions do no harm to the poorest children.

It is good that the American Federation of Teachers is examining the effects of its contracts, but it needs to look within districts and make sensible comparisons.

Paul T. Hill


Center on Reinventing Public Education

Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs

University of Washington

Seattle, Wash.

A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2007 edition of Education Week as Urban Legend?